Twelve year old Erin Gilbert landed on her tailbone in the mulch. Shadows stood over her, tall and faceless with the sun shining from behind them. She knew who it was though. It was always the same boys.
"You talk too much, ghost girl!"
"Yeah, why can't you shut up? Little Miss Gilbert, teacher's pet!" Without waiting for a response, the boys turned and ran, kicking up dust behind them.
"One day, I'll be important," Erin mumbled, tears distorting her vision. "Nobody will make fun of me. Nobody will tell me what to do!" She stood up, dusted herself off, and headed toward the school.
The guidance counselor tapped her pen on the desk to a rhythm Erin couldn't hear. Her hair was dyed red as a fire truck and her nails matched impeccably. "Miss Gilbert, are you certain that a career in science is your calling?"
Erin cringed. "I'm entirely sure. Are my grades not good enough?" She stared at her hands. A 3.98 wasn't her best, but it had to be enough.
"It isn't that, dear. It's just that..." The woman hesitated, skimming Erin's file. "That's not a hospitable environment for young women. Wouldn't you rather go into nursing? That's quite scientific!"
"No." Erin bit her nails, anxious about disagreeing with an adult but more anxious about how her future seemed to be teetering in the balance. "I want to study physics."
"Miss Gilbert, please be reasonable. What will you do with a degree in physics?"
Erin stood, trembling from head to toe. "I'll be a physicist." With every ounce of determination she had, she turned and left the office.
The lecture hall was large. Erin enjoyed being one of a sea of faces, blending with so many people whose passions were like hers. Among such masses, who could belittle her?
"Nothing in existence is unexplainable," her professor was saying, pacing back and forth in the front of the room. "There are simply things that have not yet been explained."
Erin raised her hand. "Like the paranormal?" she asked, a thrill racing through her.
"No self-respecting scientist believes in the paranormal, I can assure you that Miss..."
Erin's heart sank. "Gilbert, sir. But just suppose such an instance was substantiated, what would that mean for the scientific community?"
The man snorted. "I don't suppose anything, Miss Gilbert. I'm a scientist. I deal in facts." He turned back to his slides. "If that nonsense is over, let's move on to some fresh notes."
Erin was writhing in pain, squirming in the seats of the ER. Abby stroked her hand soothingly. As a nurse walked by, she flagged him down.
"What the hell is taking so long, my friend here has been waiting for four hours?"
He frowned. "What's she here for again?" He shuffled through his papers to find her sheet.
Sick of being spoken of as if she wasn't present, Erin spoke up. "Abdominal pain," she gasped, clutching her side.
The young man's demeanor shifted immediately. "Miss Gilbert, menstrual cramps may be quite painful, but I assure you there's nothing to be afraid of. There's nothing wrong with you. The doctors will see you soon and you'll be on your way."
In her anger, Erin stood to tell this man - no, this boy - exactly how much pain she was in, but when she was upright she froze. A bolt of white-hot pain shot through her, and she heard scream, an intense shriek from very far away, and she fell into darkness.
When she awoke, she was lying in a hospital bed. The doctor told her that her appendix had burst, and they'd had to remove it.
"Miss Gilbert," he asked, "why didn't you tell anyone how much pain you were in?"
Gown ironed? Check.
Shoes shined? Check.
Cap on forwards? Erin peered in the mirror anxiously. For her undergrad ceremony, she'd worn her cap backward for all the photos before someone told her to switch it. This time, she'd get it right. This time would be perfect.
"Dr. Erin Gilbert," she whispered, and smiled. She liked the way that sounded.
A new job, a fresh start, and at Columbia university of all places! Erin was buzzing. This was it! This was what she had worked so hard for. Having earned the prestige of her colleagues and taken a position as a professor, she couldn't wait to share her knowledge with the world. This excitement may have been what brought her to the faculty lunchroom at six am when her first class was at ten. Then again, that may have just been nerves.
"Excuse me miss, would you please go make another coffee? That pot shouldn't ever be this empty. Ever." A man with a short grey beard and a face as brown and wrinkled as am old paper lunch bag was tapping his foot at her, glaring.
"I'm sorry sir, I'm not-" she started, flustered, but the man paid her no mind.
"These girls just don't know their place anymore," he muttered, sitting down at a table and opening his morning paper.
Erin sighed and started up a pot of coffee.
"Hardcover, eBook, AND audiobook? Seriously Abby?" Erin's pulse was skyrocketing as she stalked into Abby's office. She was almost too angry to be nervous. Almost.
"I've been waiting a long time!" she heard Abby call from the belly of a mechanism Erin was trying hard not to be interested in. There was so much going on in this room! So much that her inquisitive mind was desperate to understand.
"It has been awhile, hasn't it?" Erin responded, eyes darting around the room.
"I hope you brought me more than one wonton this time!" Abby answered, finally rounding the corner of a large machine. Erin was baffled by this response but her reply caught up in her throat. There she was. There was Abby, she was right there and wow it had been way too long, much much much too long and wow, Abby looked great. What was that thing on her head? There wasn't time for that now, though. Not with tenure on the line. Not with everything she'd worked toward tipping so precariously over a cliff.
"Bennie, why don't you show Miss Gilbert the door?"
It hit her right in the gut.
"Come here often?" Erin's nerves were frayed to the point if breaking, and she jumped and whirled around.
A young woman with pointed features and wild blonde curls was sprawled comfortably in a chair.
"W-who are you?" Erin asked.
"Holtzmann," the woman said brusquely, snapping off an elbow-length rubber gloves to reveal...more gloves. She reached out for a handshake.
"Erin Gilbert." Erin shook the offered hand.
"I've heard terrible things," Holtzmann said warmly, as if the were sharing a private joke. Erin didn't get it, but she liked it.
Abby reappeared from her wonton snafu and introduced Holtzmann more thoroughly. So this was Dr Jillian Holtzmann, the wonder child of the scientific community who had disappeared from the face of the earth.
Holtzmann had an arm slung around Abby's shoulder protectively. She was an amazing scientist. How had she introduced herself as simply "Holtzmann"?
Erin licked her lips nervously. They were salty, and there was just a bit of ectoplasm lingering there that made her cringe. It tasted sour and she nearly retched. It never really seemed to go away anymore. It tasted almost as bad as the memories she'd just shared. It was hard, telling Patty and Holtzmann how hard her childhood had been
"Man, kids is mean. But I believe you," Patty said sympathetically. Erin smiled at her. She was such a kind woman, sometimes Erin still got caught up in how lucky she was.
"I have some questions," Holtzmann said, toying with the straw in her drink. Erin's stomach dropped as Patty admonished Holtz, but Holtzmann caught Erin's eye and winked. Erin's cheek were hot but there was a burst of pride in her chest.
Erin was sent sprawling down the front steps of the Mercado, arms still wrapped around Abby. Above her was the unmistakable whooping of her jubilant teammates, so she opened her eyes and looked around, blinking in shock at how ordinary and sunny the New York street was. Holtzmann grabbed her hands and pulled her up into a massive hug.
"That was crazy, Dr. Gilbert," she whispered.
Erin beamed with pride before noticing Abby's rapidly aged hair...and her own.
"What year is it?"
"It's 2040. Our president is a plant."
"Oh, I totally forgot. This is Dr. Rebecca Gorin, my mentor." Erin fought to keep her mouth closed. Who just casually invited a brilliant engineer over and didn't tell her roommates? And why did Erin always have to meet important people this way?
"Do we need this safety light?" Dr Gorin asked Holtzmann.
"'Safety lights are for dudes," Holtzmann chortled, raising a hand for a high five.
"Safety lights are for dudes," Dr Gorin agreed, slapping Holtzmann's hand. "I hate doing that."
Erin snorted, and Holtz seemed to remember she was there. "Wow, I'm the worst host! Dr Gorin, this is Dr Erin Gilbert, our brilliant particle physicist."
Dr Gordon grasped her hand firmly. "Pleasure to meet you, I've heard impressive things. You wrote the book, yes? Ghosts From Our Past et cetera?"
Erin flushed. "Well, Dr Yates and I collaborated," she demurred.
"I read it at Jillian's behest, I'm impressed. It's an astounding pleasure, Dr Gilbert," Dr Gorin repeated, disappearing behind the containment unit.
The night was cool and there was a light breeze ruffling Erin's bangs.
"Erin, baby, let's go inside. There's a pot of coffee on."
"Decaf?" Erin asked tiredly. "I'll need to sleep soon."
"I'll start some. Come on in and warm up."
Erin flapped her hand. "I'll be in."
She'd stayed on the roof after the others went inside, watching the glitter of the lights. Her work had never felt more valid, and she really wanted to savor this.
A hand grasped her shoulder.
"Patty, I'll be in then-" Erin sighed, turning away from the shimmering spectacle.
Holtzmann was standing beside her, grinning.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" Holtz asked, staring out into the city, eyes out of focus behind yellow lensed.
"It is," Erin answered, leaning against the edge of the roof. The cold cement dug into her forearms. "It feels good to be validated."
Holtz stared at her, almost through her. "Erin," she said gravely. "You don't need to be validated. You're valid all on your own." Her hand was still on Erin's shoulder. "You saved the world. You saved Abby. What could be more validating?"
"All my life I've been shut down. Miss Gilbert, you can't do this. Miss Gilbert, you can't do that. I've been cut down and told off and knocked around and -"
"Dr Gilbert," Holtz cut her off, tilting her chin to face her, "you can do anything. And no one gets to cut you off but me." Erin hadn't realized how close they were standing until now. "You wrote an amazing and accurate book on scientific theory despite having no research to prove it...and you were right. You were almost hit by a train. You're an ectoplasm magnet. You're badass." She bit her lip.
Erin's heart was racing. She leaned forward, cheeks flushing. "Anything?" she asked, giddy.
Holtz looked nervous, but their foreheads were touching now. "Anything."
Erin kissed her. There would be no describing it later, when Abby and Patty asked for gossip. Lips, and tongue, and some teeth? The taste of black coffee, maybe. And happiness. An eternity of happiness.
When they pulled apart, Erin giggled. Holtz grinned and fixed Erin's bangs.
"Patty says your coffee's getting cold."